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The Great Debate Over the Origin of the Ice Cream Sundae

Drizzling chocolate sauce over ice cream and topping it with a cherry seems like such a simple, intuitive decision that it’s no wonder multiple places claim to be the first to do it. But who made the first true ice cream sundae, and who came up with that unique name? Those are questions that food aficionados have been wrestling with for more than a century.

Several cities claim to be the birthplace of the ice cream sundae, among them New Orleans, New York, Buffalo, and Cleveland. But the strongest claims fall to three much smaller locales—including two that have been at each other’s throats for years over the matter.

The earliest claim belongs to Two Rivers, Wisconsin, located 40 miles southeast of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. On a summer Sunday in 1881, soda fountain owner Ed Berners, at the request of a vacationing customer, reportedly poured chocolate syrup over a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Berners said in later interviews that he didn’t think the concoction would taste good—which is understandable, since soda was the common accompaniment to ice cream at the time. Luckily for Berners, he was dead wrong.

After savoring the chocolate-laden concoction, he began serving it every Sunday thereafter for a nickel. He also mixed in other ingredients, like bananas, nuts, raspberry sauce, and puffed rice, cooking up creations with colorful names like the Jennie Flip and the Flora Dora. Because of the significance of the last day of the week, Berners called his chocolate and ice cream treat a “Sunday,” later changing the name to “sundae” at the suggestion of a customer.

Residents of Two Rivers, who today number around 2000, are fiercely proud of their contribution to America’s dessert menus. The town’s visitors center houses a working replica of Berners’s soda fountain, where you can stop in for your own Two Rivers sundae. There’s also a plaque and various references throughout the town naming it the “official” birthplace of the ice cream sundae.

A certain crunchy college town in upstate New York, though, begs to differ with that designation. Officials in Ithaca, New York claim that on Sunday, April 3, 1892, the Reverend John Scott of the local Unitarian Church dropped by the Platt & Colt Pharmacy after services to enjoy a bowl of ice cream with the shop’s owner, Chester Platt. Instead of the usual unadorned scoops of vanilla, Platt decided to add cherry syrup and a candied cherry to each serving of ice cream. Platt named his creation the “Cherry Sunday” in honor of the day and his most holy company. Realizing he had a hit on his hands, he advertised the dish in the local newspaper, and soon after introduced a chocolate and a strawberry Sunday. He eventually changed the name of his dish to “sundae” to avoid offending the good reverend and the church.

Folks in Ithaca believe their story trumps Two Rivers’ for one big reason: evidence. Several years ago, a pair of intrepid local high schoolers rooted around in the town archives and came up with a solid paper trail. This includes the 1892 newspaper advertisement (believed to have been placed the day after Platt first served his Cherry Sunday), a newspaper article about Platt’s Sundays, a letter from the shop’s clerk, and a store ledger proving Platt had all the ingredients necessary.

Game, set, match for Ithaca—right?

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Well, not quite. Two Rivers stands by its story, despite Ithaca’s seemingly foolproof case. Their argument: Just because they lack hard evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. With both sides firmly dug in, a civic (albeit good-humored) spat has developed between the towns. Each has bought an ad in the other’s newspaper stating its case. Officials have written letters back and forth over the years. Both towns’ websites tell their side while also taking shots at the other. Two Rivers even issued a cease-and-desist order to Ithaca regarding their sundae story.

Residents, meanwhile, are quick to sound off about their respective first-ness.

“Everybody knows Two Rivers invented it,” one resident told The New York Times back in 2006. “That’s why we’re all so fat here. We eat a lot of them.”

A few years ago, Ithaca’s mayor received more than 100 postcards from Two Rivers’ residents, including one from “The Ghost of Ed Berners.” Two Rivers also sent a DVD of citizens singing a sundae “fight song.” In response, Ithaca came up with its own song called "Sundae Love," a barbershop-style ballad set to the tune of "Moon River."

Two Rivers, always in denial
The story you compile won’t play.
Your sign maker, a truth faker
Without sundae proof, your claims melted away.

While Ithaca and Two Rivers continue to duke it out for sundae supremacy, a third town quietly makes its case. In 1890, the town of Evanston, Illinois passed a ban prohibiting ice cream sodas on Sunday. This “blue law” came about through the influence of the Methodist church, which wasn’t pleased with the crowds the local soda fountains drew on the Sabbath. The soda fountains and drug stores, in response, came up with a clever workaround: the “Sunday soda.” As Richard Lloyd Jones, a former newspaper editor who grew up in Evanston at the time, wrote:

“Some ingenious confectioners and drug store operators in ‘Heavenston,’ obeying the law, served ice cream with the syrup of your choice without the soda. Thereby complying with the law. They did not serve ice cream sodas. They served sodas without soda on Sunday. This sodaless soda was the Sunday soda.”

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Born out of necessity, the Sunday soda nevertheless underwent a name change so as not to further offend the church. Evanston’s ice cream sundae became a local hit and quickly spread across the country. Or so Evanstonians say. Ithaca, Jones writes, likely got the idea from a Northwestern student returning home to upstate New York, or from a Cornell student from Evanston.

The other origin stories from around the country are as colorful as they are numerous. They include a druggist named Sonntag (Swedish for “Sunday”), a broken soda machine, a pastor with a sweet tooth, and a demanding little girl with a craving for chocolate syrup.

According to Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains, the name “sundae” almost certainly developed as a way to avoid offending the church. Beyond that, though, it’s difficult to say anything with certainty about the ice cream sundae’s origins. Part of the difficulty is in sorting through the various accounts. There’s also the question of what really makes a sundae? Is it the combination of ice cream, chocolate, and cherry? Or should there be chopped nuts, as well? And what about whipped cream?

Luckily, a definitive answer isn’t required to enjoy one.

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The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
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A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
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For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
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Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
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But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

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London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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